Friendship on hold during 'Iron Chef' competition

Baltimore Sun reporter

It probably won't surprise Duff Goldman's many fans that a power drill will make an appearance next weekend when the master cake baker takes on Michael Symon in "Iron Chef America."

After all, blow torches, grinders and other tools that go vroom are routinely used in Goldman's shop, Charm City Cakes, to build the structures of elaborate pastries that have included an anatomically correct model of an ear and a smoking volcano.

But, when the new episode of "Iron Chef" airs Saturday and Sunday, viewers will see Goldman use the drill in a manner that blazes a new path, even for him.

And that's as specific as he's going to be for now.

"Let's just say that it was a new technique that I'd never tried before, and that the drill did exactly what I wanted it to do," Goldman says over the phone from Chicago, where he's touring with his indie rock band, soihadto (so I had to).

Goldman gets a kick out of surprising people, whether it's the customers who fork over upward of $1,000 for one of his custom-decorated creations or the viewers of his Food Network show, "Ace of Cakes."

Sometimes, he even surprises himself.

One day, Goldman was hanging around at the Food Network. One of the "Chef" producers suggested, half-jokingly, that he be a guest contestant on the televised reality competition that pits a novice cook against an expert. Symon, a James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef, was walking by, happened to overhear the conversation and immediately jumped on it.

"Michael and I have a funny kind of friendship that goes back about three years," Goldman says. "He has a distinctive laugh, and I have a distinctive laugh. He has a goatee, and I have a goatee. We have a bond based on baldness and our love for bacon-flavored ice cream. When he said he wanted to compete against me, I was like, 'Oh, no, now I have to do it.' "

Plenty of confidenceIt's not that Goldman lacks confidence. Far from it. But inviting a pastry chef to compete in a cooking competition is like inviting a classical pianist to play the saxophone in a jazz band. The two spheres might belong to roughly the same world, but they occupy very different ZIP codes.

"Cake decorating is deliberate, reflective and cerebral," Goldman says. "It's concerned with physics and chemistry. You have to have someone explain the intricacies of why you have to use a certain flour and what the protein content of it is, and why the butter has to be at a certain temperature. At Charm City Cakes, we're constantly stepping back and evaluating what we're doing. We can take a whole week to design, prep, bake and decorate one cake.

"Cooking you learn by doing. It's a lot more instinctive. A good line cook is really jamming, really rock 'n' rolling, totally in the moment. It's so fast. The kitchen is crazy, the cameras on the set are going, and you don't even have time to think about it. I've played sports my whole life, and the physical act of cooking brings out the dumb jock in me."

Though it's been eight years since he's cooked professionally, he has a background in chopping, sauteing and stir-frying.

At age 14, he got his first job at a bagel shop in a shopping mall. He worked his way up to greasy spoons, pizza joints and, eventually, serious restaurants. For a time, he made cornbread and biscuits at Charleston, one of Baltimore's finest restaurants.

And even after he created Charm City Cakes in 2000, Goldman has never backed away entirely from the range.

During a recent ice-fishing trip in Minnesota, he gutted and grilled the catch of the day for the entire group. Every year, Goldman wields the deep-fat fryer at Charm City Cakes' annual Super Bowl party - although another commitment will keep him from this year's bash. And he considers himself a master of gnocchi.

"I think people who watch the show will see a very, very different side of me," he says. "I wanted to prove that I can cook as well as bake, which is not something people usually associate with me."

For his part, Symon acknowledges having a few jitters about competing against his friend.

"The culinary world is small at the end of the day, and when you go against any other chef, you usually know their food pretty intimately. Going up against Duff, I was going up against the unknown. I know about his history of cooking savory, and I know that he's very talented and very creative. I was nervous, and I don't fluster easily."

Would Symon ever consider turning the tables and facing off against Goldman in a baking contest?

There is a moment of dead silence, but eventually Symon says:

"I make no bones about it. I have no understanding of pastry. So probably not, unless we were going to blow something up."

For the two-member team that would back him up on "Iron Chef," Goldman brought in two accomplished cooks from San Francisco: his former boss, Jesse Llapitan, the man who he says "fixed my soul as a chef," and Llapitan's sous-chef at the Palace Hotel, Shawn Aoki.

"Shawn is just as gung-ho as the two of us, if not more so," Goldman says. "He'd chop off his own finger if you asked him to."

Though the three had no idea what food they'd be preparing on the show, they got together a day before the broadcast and cooked dish after dish to fine-tune their rhythm and timing.

Still, Goldman found it disorienting to cook without longtime assistant Geof Manthorne at his elbow.

"It was definitely weird," Goldman says. "Geof has been with me for every baking competition I've done for the past eight years, so it was like being without my right hand."

Charm City cheerleadersThe entire staff of Charm City Cakes went to New York to watch the taping and spur their boss on, and it's fair to say that they made their presence known. They took noise-makers. And banners. And pompoms.

"When Duff first heard he'd be doing the show, there was some talk that he'd bring me along to compete with him," Manthorne says.

"Once the show started, I was so thankful I was not actually up there. Just being in the audience and watching these guys running around and watching the clock tick down was stressful. It was like watching a football game. I kept wanting to shout, 'Don't forget that thing you've got in the oven! Don't let it burn!' "

As it happens, the steaks ... er, stakes ... were even higher than Manthorne could have imagined.

"When Michael and I were talking about the show beforehand, I told him I wanted a straight-up, head-to-head battle," Goldman says. "I told him, 'I am not going to go on "Iron Chef" and make a mockery of it. Bring your best stuff, because I will try to beat you.' And he said, 'Oh, don't worry about it, buddy, I will.' "

So the two made a small wager. Goldman has a lucky baseball cap displaying the Charm City Cakes logo, and Symon claims to be undefeated when he competes in his trademark red patent leather clogs.

"We agreed that if Duff won, he'd get my clogs, and if I won, I'd get his baseball cap," Symon says.

And, in fact, one of the two chefs is now in possession of both articles of clothing.

But, that's as specific as we're going to get.

On TV Duff Goldman takes on Michael Symon in a culinary showdown on "Iron Chef America" at 10 p.m. Saturday and at 1 a.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday on the Food Network.

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